In my little newsletter for Danish customers of my language service, I wanted to write about the pronunciation of the letter g.
I have drawn on your introduction in LPD, and the matter seems pretty straightforward until the Greek/French gynecology, etc., come up, with their /g/.
First I thought that it could be that y is pronounced -aɪ-, but then what about gyrate, etc.?
I’d be grateful if you could help me out.
I suspect there is no easy way to help. There is no good spelling-to-sound rule for g before the ‘softening’ vowels i, e, y. Sometimes we have g, as in give and get; but in most cases (including in particular with words of Greek, Latin, or other non-Germanic origin), we have dʒ, as in general and ginger.
The problem arises because of the so-called “velar softening” that affects/affected Latinate words in English. The historical velars k and g, spelt in Latin and then French as c and g respectively, have, when they occur before a vowel spelt with one of i, y, e, developed into modern English s and dʒ respectively, while retaining the same spelling. This leads to spelling-to-sound uncertainty in some words of other origins, and in particular in the case of words from Ancient Greek. So some people say encephalitis with s, with velar softening, but others with k, without it; and some say pedagogy with -gi, but others with -dʒi. The first part of the first word is derived from Greek ἐγκέφαλος ‘brain’, the second part of the second from ἀγωγη ‘leading’.
Final -gy pretty reliably has dʒ no matter what the origin of a word is, as in strategy, analogy, clergy, mangy. Even here, though, as just mentioned, there is some fluctuation in pedagogy and demagogy, presumably because of the contaminating influence of pedagog(ue), demagog(ue), which of course have g.
The entry for gynaecology in the on-line OED has not been updated from the 1900 edition. Interestingly, it reveals that at that time the pronunciation of this word had not yet settled down: there was evidently uncertainty about both the initial consonant and the first vowel. I think it is clear that a century later we have settled for ˌɡaɪn-. But who knows why?
I cannot tell you why gyn(a)ecology and other words from the Greek gyn(a)ec- γυναικ- have g for most of us nowadays, while gyrate and other words with gyr-, Greek γυρ-, have dʒ.
Nor can I tell you why most Americans pronounce Elgin with dʒ, though in Britain we say it with g. And my illustrious predecessor A.C. Gimson was ˈɡɪmsən, although there are other bearers of this surname who call themselves ˈdʒɪmsən.
Even Latin-derived words are not always clear-cut. Probably none of us are entirely certain about loci, algae and fungi. not to mention the plurals of diplodocus and sarcophagus.